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  1. Florida Politics

Florida lawmakers revamp gaming bills

Published Apr. 9, 2015

TALLAHASSEE — The ever-precarious debate over the future of gambling in Florida continued its uncertain path on Wednesday when a Senate committee voted to end the requirement that horse and dog tracks operate live races and the House excluded destination resort casinos in a revised gaming bill.

But leaders say both plans appear headed for change.

The Senate Regulated Industries Committee narrowly approved a series of pro-gaming amendments to a SPB 7088 Wednesday that would have extended a portion of the gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe for one year. The amendments allow dog tracks in West Palm Beach and Naples to start operating slot machines, require that 10 percent of all slot machine revenues at the new racinos subsidize thoroughbred purses at Tampa Bay Downs, and give all pari-mutuels the option to end live racing.

But the amendments prompted the committee's chairman, Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, to vote against his own bill and predict that it will be modified if it is going to survive in the Senate.

"I would suspect that if we have a gaming bill come out of the Senate, it will look probably a bit different than what you saw come out of this committee today,'' Bradley said after the meeting.

Meanwhile, House Republican Leader Dana Young of Tampa released a revamped gaming bill, HB 1233, that shrinks her ambitious 316-page gaming bill to 59 pages and removes all opportunities for gaming expansion in Florida, including the opportunity for Miami Dade and Broward to offer destination resort casinos.

Young's scaled down plan now focuses on a narrow goal of ending the requirement that greyhound tracks operate live racing in order to offer pokers games or slot machines. It also caps pari-mutuel permits and requires tracks that continue to race greyhounds adhere to strict new requirements to report all dog injuries.

But destination resorts may not be dead for the session if an amendment offered by House Rules Chairman and Rep. Rich Workman, R-Melbourne, is approved by the House Regulated Industries Committee at its meeting Thursday.

His plan would revive the chances for Genting and Las Vegas Sands to bring destination resorts to Miami Dade and Broward by requiring them to either get approval from voters in a local referendum, or an affirmative vote of the county commission.

If there is local support for the Las Vegas style casinos by January, the Legislature could the authorize the casinos when it meets in regular session next year.

The avalanche of proposals to revise the bills proposed by House and Senate underscores the tensions emerging over the future of gaming legislation this year as a key provision in the Seminole gaming compact expires this year.

Under the 2010 agreement with the state, the state gave the Seminole Tribe the exclusive right to operate black jack and other banked card games at their casinos in exchange for about $150 million in annual revenue sharing with the state. Bradley's bill would give the governor the authority to expand it for one year, allowing lawmakers to buy time to decide how to proceed with the array of gaming options.

"Right now, there is a distance between the parties and the purpose of me filing the one-year extension bill is the recognition that there is a distance that is not likely to be closed by the end of session,'' Bradley said.

But Bradley's plan to extend the compact quickly became a vehicle to advance the agendas of other interest groups.

For example, Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Boca Raton, successfully amended the bill to end the requirement for live racing at dog tracks, a provision known as decoupling that will allow for the phase out of dog racing in Florida, which is the largest dog racing state in the nation. It also reduces the tax credit for greyhound track owners and allows jai alai frontons to continue card games without offering jai alai matches.

"Dog racing has cost the state money so by decoupling it would have a positive impact,'' Sachs said.

The provision has been sought by animal rights activists, Grey2K USA, the Humane Society of the United States and has the support of most of the 12 greyhound tracks in Florida. Track operators say that the sport is dying, the racing requirement costs them money, and they would rather focus on card rooms and slot machines.

"The dog racing mandate is a failed policy,'' said Carey Thiel, executive director of Grey@2K USA, a greyhound advocacy organization. He cited the independent report commissioned by the Florida Legislature two years ago that said the state spends as much as $3 million more regulating dog tracks each year than it collects in tax revenue.

"The state is losing and the dogs are losing,'' he said, citing statistics that show that in the past 20 months 196 racing dogs have died and, on average, a racing dog dies every three days.

But the Florida Greyhound Association argued against ending the racing requirement, saying it will cost 3,000 jobs of people who own, breed and train dogs.

"We also believe that the public wants a right to say whether these tracks should be converted into mini casinos,'' said David Bishop, lobbyist for the Florida Greyhound Association.

Also opposing the amendment were horse and harness track operators and jai alai frontons, especially those that operate slot machines. They argue that dog tracks that operate slot machines, such as Mardi Gras Casino and Magic City Casino, now will have a competitive advantage because they no longer have to subsidize racing permits.

In an attempt to even the competition, Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, successfully proposed an amendment to end the requirement that horse tracks and jai alai frontons also offer live racing or games.

"If we do it for one, we should do it for all,'' he said.

But the Florida Horse Benevolent Protective Association, which represents thoroughbred breeders and trainers, warned that giving casino operators the option to race less could be the death knell for their industry too.

With the added provisions, Bradley said he could not vote for his bill but he supported the effort. "I may have some personal feelings about gaming but my job is to take all the views of the Senate, put them together and have this debate and move it forward," he said.

The revised Senate bill increased the differences between the House and Senate, increasing the odds of resolving their differences before the session ends, said Steve Geller, a former state senator turned lobbyist.

"They are miles apart,'' Geller said after the Senate meeting adjourned. "This was the annual demonstration of lobbyist prowess that each lobbyist had to get something to show their principal that they still had some clout up here."

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at meklas@miamiherald.com. Follow @MaryEllenKlas.

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